The Financial Crisis and the Call Center Generation
The current global financial crisis is sending waves of panic even to those who, in theory, should be the least affected from it. While this all started with the fall of Northern Rock and the food price crisis late last year, there wasn’t a big cause for concern among us at the time. With the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the US government’s bailout of AIG this month, the faltering global economy cannot be denied any longer. This week, the NYSE plunged over 700 points, and sent shockwaves all throughout the world, following Congress rejecting the Paulson plan.
If this is not a sign of crisis, I don’t know what is. But let’s situate this whole thing, since we’re not Americans: if the crisis goes unabated and unresolved, we just might be the generation most affected from the 2008 global financial crisis: we just might be the first generation to experience massive lay-offs and unemployment since the Great Depression.
I’m not a very good prophet of doom; if all is gloomy with the global economy, then why are call centers and BPOs still popping out everywhere? Why are job postings still being circulated all over e-mails and Internet forums? These are all too good to last – in fact they should, lest we all lose our jobs – especially since anyone who works for the outsourcing industry is, for all intents and purposes, a “worker of the world.”
Sure, “slavery” for a BPO worker is a good metaphor, but there are a few caveats that should be raised about your average Makati/Ortigas/Eastwood wage slave:
- They are highly educated (many of which are pursuing their master’s degrees or advanced studies, like Medicine or Law)
- They are very skilled workers (adept at English, computer applications, troubleshooting, customer relations)
- The means of production now involves a whole new different form of capital (information, which is a non-material resource)
Outsourcing is a very unstable economic and business paradigm that’s difficult to sustain. Employees, as well as entire companies, come and go. Its foundations are shifting, transient, and inchoate. The basic principle of process outsourcing and employee off-shoring is very coherent, and is consistent with capitalism: cheap and optimized labor, minimum costs, and maximum profit. It’s exploitative and even oppressive, but the fact remains that this business model works. The question remains: for how long will this model work so cleanly and efficiently? When will this iteration of the capitalist machine break down?
We are in the midst of a global financial crisis at a time when most corporations have gone global, and outsourced some of their labor force and human resource needs to other countries. In a global financial crisis, companies are bound to collapse, or to address the threat of collapse with serious measures bound to save the company and survive the crisis:
- Even seemingly stable companies like Northern Rock and Lehman Brothers have already shut their doors.
- Merrill-Lynch has reorganized itself into an investment bank instead of an investment firm.
- The Hongkong-Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) has laid off at least 1,000 workers in the bid to cope with the crisis.
- Many accounts in the hundreds of call centers and outsourcing companies have closed or reorganized, leaving thousands of employees who didn’t make the cut either out of a job, or floated by the company in the hopes of making it in the competitive scramble for outsourcing deals with prospective clients.
In the absence of unions and associations meant to protect employees, employees in the outsourcing industry are in grave danger of losing work, should this financial crisis go unabated. One solution is rather simple: it’s for each and every employee to work their darndest to keep their jobs and prove that they are of great value to both the company and the client. The problem is that you can only expect so much dedication from people who do repetitive, droll tasks in customer service and tech support, where even comparatively generous pay becomes a non-issue considering the lack of prospects in career advancement and personal fulfillment.
My solution – something that call centers are probably not keen on – would be a Magna Carta for workers in the outsourcing and off-shoring industry; a charter that binds and organizes its employees, all enjoying rights and privileges that, at the very least, will do the following:
- Protect employees from unfair and unjust business practices
- Universalize healthcare, insurance, cost-of-living allowances and other benefits to all employees in the BPO industry regardless of position and tenure
- Grant employees the freedom to take stock in publicly-traded BPOs
- Grant employees the freedom to organize and associate
The idea may seem lofty, if not disagreeable, and not everyone will be keen on the idea of workers’ rights in a temporary, shifting environment like the call center industry. For now, it’s a matter on of holding on, or letting go.
How romantic for an irony.